Years ago an announcement was made that the Solari split-flap departure board would be disappearing from New Haven Union Station. Despite pleas to Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, the decision was made and would not be changed.
Although it survived longer than we thought it would, the board was unfortunately replaced last week. Here is a short timelapse to remember it by…
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Back in February of 1986 I had not yet reached my second birthday… I’m not too familiar with the milestones of an aging child, so for all I know I could have still been wearing diapers at that time. Metro-North, founded in 1983, was a fledgling organization. Though we may be similar in age, Metro-North didn’t seem to have much of a “diaper wearing” stage. In terms of the Harlem Line, they hit the ground running – beginning major renovations to the line. The tracks were electrified from North White Plains to Brewster North (Southeast), and over 10 million was spent on upgrading Brewster yard (aka Putnam Junction) and shop. Metro-North was also trying to reach their customers – printing several guides to explain to riders what they do, and give a brief tour of the system.
I’d like to have one of these in my backyard. The loco and the castle.
Since SmartCat debuted about two weeks ago, I’ve still been working on adding plenty of new material for you all to peruse. Two of the newest things found in the catalog are two brochures Metro-North released in or around 1986. One was a guide to the Metro-North system, the other a Grand Central and Customer Service guide.
Just spotting the little things that have changed over the years is quite fun. It was a time where terrorism was not as much of a concern, and the Terminal had a room where you could temporarily store your bags. And people weren’t quite so health conscious either – Harlem and Hudson trains each had one car reserved for smokers, the New Haven Line had two. Vanderbilt Hall was still a waiting room, and many of the updates – including the other stairwell in the main concourse, and the cleanup of the sky ceiling – in Grand Central had not yet been made. Amtrak trains still stopped at the Terminal, and places like Crugers and Kent Road were still stops listed on the system map.
The old Omega departure board can be seen in one of the brochures. It was replaced by an LCD Solari board in the late 90’s.
You should definitely check out SmartCat if you haven’t already, or if you want to jump right to the aforementioned brochures, you can use these links:
As an addendum to this post, as I’ve gotten a few messages regarding adding things to SmartCat, I would absolutely love user submissions. If you have anything that you think would be archivable, whether it be a timetable, postcard, ticket, etc… send me a message. I’d love to add it!
I’ve mentioned it a few times on here, but I absolutely hate Metro-North’s phone information line. Back in the day you would call up and hit the first few letters of the station you were going to on your keypad. It was rather simple. Unfortunately, the system was “upgraded” to a voice recognition system that worked like crap. You would say your station name, and provided there was no background noise, only then would the system understand you. Anotherwords, if you were anywhere in the entire fricken city of New York, the schedule system didn’t work. But it would sure as hell patronize you… Can you repeat that? For folks without fancy phones with internet capabilities, this was pretty much the only option for getting train times on the go, besides having a timetable in your pocket.
Last week Metro-North announced a new way to access your train schedules: CooCoo. I had heard of it, as it had already been put to use for the Long Island Railroad, but had never used it. However, from the various articles written about it, I never quite realized how absolutely awesome CooCoo is. All you have to do is send a text message to 266266 (the number for CooCoo) with your stations like this: Goldens Bridge to Grand Central. Then CooCoo texts you back with the next five trains. Simple. Easy. Want to know the trains for tomorrow? You can do that too: Goldens Bridge to Grand Central 7am. Each train that CooCoo comes back with has a letter assigned to it… respond to the text message with just that letter, and it will text you more information about that train, like the duration and fare price, regular and onboard. CooCoo will also tell you if any of the trains are delayed or cancelled, which can also be a big help.
Now that I’ve started using CooCoo, I’ve come up with a few reasons why I absolutely love it:
CooCoo is easy to remember
I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what the phone number for the Metro-North info line is anymore. They got rid of their 800 number, and even THAT was confusing. Oh, and before they got rid of the 800, if you screwed up and dialed MTA-INFO instead of METRO-INFO, you found that you had called a sex line.
CooCoo, on the other hand, is pretty easy to remember. 266266. CooCoo on the number pad. Easy.
CooCoo is harder to confuse
Whoever tested Metro North’s phone system was probably in a white room with padded walls and there was no sound whatsoever. If you were anywhere outside a sterile setting, the system couldn’t understand the station you just said… which I previously mentioned is incredibly difficult in a city as loud as New York. It got frustrating really fast.
I purposely tried to confuse CooCoo. And you know what CooCoo said to me? “Emily, I am not that stupid.” Whether you typed Purdy’s or Purdys, Grand Central or GCT, CooCoo knew what the heck you were talking about. Want to really try to confuse it? Enter something like White Plains to New Haven. Instead of crapping out, CooCoo has the answer for you- with info on where to change trains, and what time your connection comes. CooCoo isn’t messing around.
CooCoo is quiet and quick
In a restaurant and want to know when the next train is? Text CooCoo. Quiet, and quick. If I was sitting at a table next to someone shouting into their phone “GRAND CEN-TRAL TO GOL-DENS BRIDGE” I would probably want to slap them. Oh, and for stupid dyslexics like me, you can always look at that text message again if you forget or happen to transpose a few numbers in your mind (“Damn, was that train at 7:15 or 7:51?”).
CooCoo is so much more than train schedules
Want to know your horoscope? Sports scores? Weather? Flights? Movies? Even the schedule of the tides? CooCoo knows it all. Find out all the nifty things you can do with CooCoo.
While some news outlets have introduced CooCoo as a replacement to train departure boards, I don’t think that is the service’s niche. For instance, it doesn’t tell you what track your train is going to be on in Grand Central. Departure boards aren’t going obsolete anytime soon. CooCoo is instead a great service for anyone on the go, and to check if your train is on time – and I’m glad it has come to Metro-North.
A list of sources used by this blog for various posts, by topic:
Harlem Line History
The Coming of the New York & Harlem Railroad, Louis V. Grogan The definitive guide for everything about the Harlem Line. Available for purchase at the Danbury Railway Museum.
Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Edward Renehan Note: although a post was written about this book, an alternate biographer of Vanderbilt claims that much of the ideas put forward in this book are false. An Amazon review explains in detail:
Stiles compellingly demonstrates that two diaries Renehan claimed to use to support his most sensational claim, that the Commodore suffered from syphilitic dementia for the last decade of his life and was no more than a puppet run by his son William, are imaginary. Renehan’s tale is contradicted by everything we know about syphilis; he refuses to let anyone examine his copies of the “diaries;” he refuses to name the present owners of the diaries; and, oh yes, he is currently doing time in New York for having stolen and sold letters by Washington, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt belonging to the Theodore Roosevelt Association, of which he had been acting director.
Travel by Train: The American Railroad Poster, 1870-1950
Michael E. Zega, John E. Gruber
Grand Central Terminal: Railroads, Engineering, and Architecture in New York City
Kurt C. Schlichting
Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives
John Belle, Maxinne R. Leighton
Solari di Udine
Monocle Magazine, #13 volume 02 – May 2008
Perfect Company: Solari di Udine Download article
Whether you knew the name or not, if you’ve ever been to Grand Central or Penn Station, you are familiar with a Solari departure board. Since the 1950’s Solari boards have been installed in airports and train stations worldwide. Although most people refer to the original flap style boards as Solaris, the company also produces more modern LCD and LED display boards, such as the one that is now in Grand Central. On Monday I showed some photos from Union Station in New Haven, the last Metro-North location to have one of the Solari flap-style displays. Most unfortunately, that sign is going to be replaced. In honor of that board, and of Solari’s functional yet elegant contribution to rail and public transport, I thought I’d feature the history of the company this Friday.
Solari split-flap clocks. Silkscreened flaps. Massimo Paniccia, president of the Solari company.
Solari is based in Italy, and has roots back to the 1700’s, where they produced timepieces and later on, clocks for bell towers. The current incarnation of the name is from brothers Remigio and Fermo Solari, who broke from the original family business and established their own business also under the name Solari. Remigio was a self-taught engineer, and it was he who invented the iconic flap display which many are familiar with. The idea was used in both large and small scale: from large departure displays used by railroads and airports, to small clocks for the home.
The flap display was introduced in 1956, and was installed in airports and rail stations across the world. The design used various metal (and later, plastic) flaps with silkscreened information, all which were mounted on a wheel. Each wheel could hold up to 40 flaps. When the information on the board had to change, the wheel was rotated until the proper flap was displayed. With each flip, the board made a particular clack, which is so memorable to passengers that when Boston replaced their Solari flap display with an LED display in 2004, they kept the noise. It plays over a loudspeaker to alert passengers that the information has changed (Though I’ve heard from a commenter that it doesn’t do a very good job at imitating it).
Solari flap-style board in Grand Central
As a young girl I remember my first train ride on Amtrak: I was travelling with my grandmother from Penn Station to Jacksonville, Florida. I remember seeing that flap display in Penn Station, and being mesmerized. Today, that flap display is gone: it was replaced in 2000. Long Island Rail Road’s flap display, also in Penn Station, was replaced in 2003. During the New York Central days, Grand Central also had a Solari display, perhaps one of the most famous. I’ve tried digging up information about that board, but I had some difficulty. From what I can gather, that Solari display was later replaced by another split-flap display, though not made by Solari. This other board, called the Omega Board, was used by Metro-North until it was replaced during the station renovations in 1998. The current departure board in Grand Central was made by the Solari company, though it is one of the more modern LED-style boards.
Grand Central today, Solari LCD departure board visible on the left
The Solari display in New Haven’s Union Station, which will be removed shortly.
A few months ago, news hit the newspapers and internet that the Connecticut Department of Transportation was going to be removing the Solari split-flap departure board at Union Station in New Haven. There was a bit of a fight about it though: people didn’t want to see the sign go. People tried writing letters… even I wrote a letter to the CDOT, which of course, was never answered. A Facebook group, called Save Solari, even rounded up 600 fans that wanted the sign to stay. Unfortunately, it seems that all those attempts to convince the CDOT failed. Construction on New Haven’s Union Station begins today. And Metro-North has confirmed on Twitter that it will include the replacement of the split-flap display with an LED sign. The construction also includes upgrades to the sprinkler and fire protection systems, heating and a/c improvements, rehabilitation of the elevators, reconstruction of the pedestrian tunnel, and upgrades to the PA system. The construction will happen over the next twelve months, at which point of this the Solari will be removed has not been mentioned. But apparently, it’s days are numbered.
News of the impending construction led me to finally take a visit over to Union Station on Saturday. Saturday was also National Train Day, though I wasn’t aware that there were even going to be events happening at the train station. In fact, I had been there for at least an hour before I even noticed. I heard the people talking in the corner, though when I went to go investigate, politician Ned Lamont was speaking. His groupies practically tripped over their own legs to get to me and give me stickers and other political propaganda. Which I had to reject several times, at which point I just left.
Later on when I was investigating the paper hats people were wearing, I noticed that there was a cake for Union Station’s 90th Birthday. You know about me and hats, like a moth to a flame. Over by the cake though, there was an agenda for the National Train Day events at the station, which is the only way I figured out that was going on. Ned Lamont was one of the listed speakers on that agenda. Though I didn’t listen to what he had said (me and politicians have a relationship completely opposite than me and hats), I just kept thinking he somewhat hijacked this odd “National Train Day” to promote his gubernatorial campaign. I am almost as skeptical of that as I am of the whole idea of “National Train Day” – a delightful marketing event by Amtrak. Conceptually it is cool, but the real idea behind it… well, it just feels as bogus as if Hallmark declared tomorrow “Give cards to all your coworkers day.”
Alright, that is enough drivel from me, what you really came to see were the photos, right?
Departure board, we’ll miss you! And of course, Happy Birthday Union Station. For more information about the construction, be sure to check Metro North’s site.
Today the “Cat Girl” morphed into “Rabbit Girl”. It has been so cold lately, that I figured I’d use the rabbit hat, since the long ears can be wrapped around and serve as a scarf. You really know it is cold though, when you get to the station and there isn’t a single soul standing on the platform. They are all hiding in the heated vestibules until the train arrives.
When I got into work I took this photo of my rabbit attire…
A bunch of trains were delayed this morning, my friend ended up getting in late. She said that the conductor told her a woman lost her shoe on the tracks. Anyone know if this is true? If it is, it is kind of lame. Clearly she should have gone to work barefoot. Oh that would be too funny.
On my train however, I had a delightful man that apparently felt like sticking his hand down his pants. I am of the opinion that if you are in public, you should not be doing that. Ever. It is really creepy and nasty. I did actually take a picture of the guy, but after much internal debate, I have chosen to not post that image on the blog.
Anyways, the time I spent on my train (ignoring the man with his hand down his pants) was somewhat eventful, since I decided to write a note to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, regarding the Solari board’s removal next year in New Haven. Apparently a follow up article to the one I posted a few days ago was written on the New Haven Independent site a few days ago. The DOT may consider some sort of compromise, where perhaps the Solari would be saved, but moved to a different place. Or donated to a museum. And the new LCD would make the characteristic flipping noise of the Solari. This “compromise” doesn’t seem like much of a compromise, as it still means the Solari would be moved from its location in the station. If I get any sort of response to the letter I wrote, I will certainly post it here.
Despite growing up in Connecticut, about halfway in between Waterbury and Danbury, both New Haven line branches, I’ve only been on the New Haven line once. It was always easier to cross the state border and get on in Brewster, or Southeast (then Brewster North). I’ve never been to New Haven’s Union Station, although I’ve certainly driven by it. But I can certainly relate to the current New Haven train riders that are now fighting for the last Solari departure board in use on Metro-North. I don’t quite know why, but I really loved the Solari board that used to be in Grand Central when I was very young. I remember standing under the Solari that was for Amtrak in Penn Station many years ago when I took my first ride on Amtrak, going to Florida with my grandmother. I even remember the board in use also in Penn Station for the Long Island Rail Road, under which everyone would stand waiting for the information on their trains to flip up, and when it did, would race like marathon runners to their tracks. I remember all these, but today, they are all gone.
Most unfortunately, the New Haven Independent reported yesterday of the plans to remove the Solari board from New Haven’s Union station, and replace it with an LCD at some point next year. The article is full of comments, and people that want to save the board. A commenter going by the name of Erin brings up a good point:
My two cents: if the Solari sign is hard to maintain, use the $5 million it was going to cost for LED signs as a reserve fund to fix the Solari sign if ever needed.
I really do love these boards, and I would hate to see it get one more of them taken down. It ought to be kept for its historic nature, it is the last of its kind on Metro-North, and one of the few left in the United States. If the sign is going to get removed, I would love to see someone, like the Transit Museum, acquire it and put it on display. Considering the board is in Connecticut, however, I am unsure if it would even be considered for it to go to the New York Transit Museum, even though Metro-North is represented by the museum.
Though the fight is on to save the board. A group has been made on facebook called Save Solari, and there is also a page on SeeClickFix. As for me, I do believe a photography trip is in order, especially if the unfortunate happens, and the board is taken down.
My name is Emily, though I am known by many who ride the train simply as Cat Girl, for the hats I customarily wear during the winter time. I am a graphic designer, a former Metro North commuter and lifelong Harlem Line rider. This site is a collection of my usually train-related thoughts, observations, photographs, and travels, as well as my never-ending hunt for intriguing historical artifacts.